The devil and Thomas Hobbes

With the exception of Machiavelli, I can’t think of a moral philosopher with a seamier reputation than Thomas Hobbes.  His vision of human life as an unmediated conflict, with catastrophe averted only by the brute power of the state, stands at the opposite pole of our Lockean, Jeffersonian assumptions.

For all Americans, and many Anglo-Saxons, freedom is a natural condition, threatened by nothing so much as by the unnatural power of government.  For Hobbes, cowardice — fear of death — was the primal urge, which drove people to trade their freedom for security under an absolute, undivided government.  While most today consider Hobbes a great thinker, few consider him a good guide, and nobody wishes to live in a Hobbesean world.

An article in Philosophy Now (pay site) by Craig Ross, “Hobbes on Good and Evil,” detects a contradiction in the philosopher’s arguments.  According to Ross, “For Hobbes the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are  synonyms of  ‘desired’ and ‘hated.'”  In the absence of government — the state of nature — “individuals must make their own judgments, and apply their own labels.”  Stealing money from old people, to a drug user, would be good, therefore.  Injustice is impossible without a government of laws.  “In a state of war, which must exist without authority, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.”

Yet having given this account, Hobbes requires that people follow their reason, and certain of their passions, to acquiesce to the Leviathan of absolute, undivided government as the lesser evil to perpetual war.  What if they don’t?  The Founding Fathers, for example, didn’t.  Hobbes would have argued that they doomed their country to the Civil War the moment they divided and hedged authority.  They were wrong, in some objective sense.  But from his own principles — that good and evil are private judgments, not objective perceptions — how could they be led to his strong-government ideals?

Implied in Hobbes’ moral vision, Ross suggests, is the necessity of the concept of absolute good and evil.  “Certain things,” he writes, “seem to be absolute goods, regardless of what anyone thinks, because they promote the peace.”  On the other hand, “anything which compromises are person’s reason or personality is an absolute evil.”  Among Ross’ examples of the latter are drink, drugs, and — curiously — “boxing.”

I have nothing against boxing, and I believe the importance of reason in moral judgment is much exaggerated.  Still, I enjoyed Ross’ spirited ending to his dissection of Hobbes:

It is said that Hobbes became drunk once a year for the benefit of vomiting.  It might be no coincidence, then, that he failed to see what the consequences might be for someone making himself drunk, or otherwise intoxicated, on a regular basis.  Supposedly private conduct, as Aristotle certainly knew, can have public consequences.  It would certainly seem that good and evil can never be merely a question of individual judgment.  If men find good, and engage in, activities that damage their ability to reason, or which give them unhelpful passions, they cannot establish the peace.  Certain things are therefore absolute evils regardless of anyone’s opinion and regardless of whether a sovereign authority has proscribed them.


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